Heihachiro Tamura’s father was a guard at a prison camp in Tokyo during the war.  There he befriended two English officers, and taught them useful things like how to make the their thin rice gruel palatable with pickled plums.

The Englishmen were climbers, mountaineers before the war.  Tamura-san’s father had also spent his youth in the peaks around Nagano.  They shared stories of hard climbs and jagged summits, and on clear days would stand on the roof of the prison looking out through the smoke at the mountains on the edge of the city.  Then the war ended, the Englishmen were returned home and Tamura-san’s father drifted though the burnt out remains of the capital before marrying, settling down and passing his climbing stories to his only son.  His bones were too weak to let him climb again, so he became an insurance salesman and worked hard for his family as Japan raced to catch and overtake the West.

Tamura-san tells me all this as we sit together on the express out of Shinjuku, headed for the Japan Alps.  He also tells me that the English invented mountain climbing.  Is it still popular there?  Yes I tell him, but the mountains in the UK are very different to Japan.  Wetter, rounder.  No bears, wild boar or poisonous snakes.  He likes this and laughs, and then the conductor announces my station.  Tamura-san is going further north, towards the mountains his father climbed.  I am headed for Aka-dake in the Yatsu-ga-take range.

Three hours and a 700 meter climb later puts me at the Gyoja hut at the base of Aka-dake.  The mountains of Yatsu-ga-take crowd around the little tents scattered below, like Norse gods playing chess.

The climb to the top is quick and hard.  I miss the route that leads along a ridge to the summit, and instead make progress through the snow that still clings to the side of the slope, grateful for crampons and axe.  Small rock slides clatter down the mountain as the early summer sun melts the ice, and my heart jumps each time.

At the peak of Aka-dake, almost 2 miles above the Pacific, a small shrine and a solid mountain hut cling to the rocks.  The gods get five yen and my thanks for keeping watch over me during the climb.  The wind is strong to pitch a tent and the light fading too fast to make it back to the Gyoja campsite, so I stay at the hut.

As the setting sun sets the snowy peaks of the North Alps on fire, I watched and wondered if Tamura-san had climbed his mountain too.  I thought about the two Englishmen and whether they had ever come back to country which had imprisoned them, maybe climbed some of these same mountains.

The hut was warm and the guests friendly. They asked which country I was from, and they told me that the English invented mountain climbing.  I told them it’s still popular, and I slept well that night.

Another one hooked

Yuka is hooked.  Butterscotch candy bribery and the promise of a peak “only 20 minutes further on” got her to the top of Mount Kinpo on the Yamanashi border by 9am on Sunday.  Now she knows what drives her husband to get up in the middle of the night and spend long days at cold altitudes.

The plan was to climb both Kinpo-san and its neighbour Mizukaki-san over the two days, but with the sun out and the snow covered Southern Alps rising in the distance Saturday just wasn’t a day for rushing.  Instead we pitched the tent, broke out the bagels and cream cheese before heading up to hang out on the rocks at Dai-nichi at little further up the mountain.  We sat and contemplated the peaks of Mizukaki to the north and knew that it would wait for another day.  Kinpo would be enough this weekend.

Litter on Japanese mountains is a problem.  Mount Fuji was denied World Heritage Site status due to it being a 3776m mountain of discarded cans and wrappers.  Reputedly a high proportion of the litter on Everest is of Japanese origin, and our campsite was no exception.  I don’t know what particular aspect of the Japanese psyche it is that drives people to litter with such abandon when no-one is looking, but it is one of the less endearing national character traits.

I’ve carried bagfuls of litter home in the past, but this time the volume and insanitary nature of some of it called for other action – and with no-one else around to disturb, a decent fire was soon underway, making flickering orange ghosts of the silver birch trees around the perimeter.  We named all the stars and drank hot chocolate until the fire died and it got too cold to stay out any longer.

Sunday was a day for crampons, as the last snow and ice of winter still clung to the the cliffs at the top of Kinpo.  Scrambling over rocks 8000 feet up in the cold spring air while Mount Fuji roaring up from the clouds in the background was what hooked Yuka I think.  She had that look on her face, the one that says “I never want to go down, but if I must then I want to come up high again as soon as possible”.

I know she’s hooked now.  She knows how small life is when you come back down to the city, how petty all your problems really are.

“Next time I want gaiters like yours.” she said.

She knows she’ll get them.